With dozens of cookbooks published and her own cooking shows in the U.S. and Britain, you'd think Madhur Jaffrey had planned all along for a life in the kitchen. But the Indian chef began her career as a classically trained actress.
Madhur Jaffrey first won acclaim playing a diva-esque Bollywood star in the 1965 Merchant Ivory movie Shakespeare Wallah.
Jaffrey's cooking career, however, began well before her film days when, at 19, she left her family's comfortable home in Delhi to study at England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Jaffrey, a scholarship student with little money, was expected to eat at the local canteen. But when it came to British college grub, the chef tells NPR's Renee Montagne that she didn't like what she found.
"The canteen was on the fifth floor," she says. "We would have to climb up these flights of stairs, go to the top of the building, and what would we get at the end of all this climbing? We'd get a sort of slice of roast beef, which was gray; cabbage and potatoes that had been cooked for hours. I would look at it and say, 'How can I eat this?!' "
Jaffrey's surroundings didn't offer much familiarity in terms of cuisine, she says. London only had about two or three Indian restaurants, and even those were subpar. "They were so standardized, homogenized, mollified Indian food," she says. "I don't even know how to describe it."
So, to alleviate her culinary discontent, Jaffrey began what she calls "the other dream. Not the dream of coming to the West, but the dream of somehow re-creating that Indian food that I wanted so badly."
At the time, though, she didn't even know how to make the basics.
"I had not gone into the kitchen to do anything because food miraculously always appeared at the table," she says.
Without any knowledge of how to go about making Indian cuisine, Jaffrey began a sort of culinary correspondence — writing letters to her mother in Delhi asking for cooking advice, and receiving recipes in return.
"I have answers from her which start with an egg curry, hard-boiled egg curry," she says. "All the dishes that I thought maybe I can do — cauliflower and potatoes, simple meat dishes."
Though Jaffrey's mother sent recipes that were simple enough for her daughter to master, more demanding was the question of what Jaffrey could eat her Indian food with.
"I didn't know how to make rice," she says. "That seemed very complicated. I lived in this neighborhood in London, and there was a wonderful Jewish bakery. So I discovered pumpernickel bread at that time, and I ate all my Indian food with pumpernickel bread."
'[My Father] Thought I Was Weird And Interesting'
Jaffrey grew up in Delhi, India, under British colonialism. She comes from a line of writers, translators and lawyers who had worked in the Mughal court, before British rule. She was raised on an idyllic estate, surrounded by gardens and orchards, on land given to her family by the British.
When Jaffrey — the fifth†child in her family — decided she wanted to become an actress, she encountered little resistance.
"My father had two perfect sons, two perfect, pretty daughters. And then there was me. And my father rather enjoyed, I think, having this very odd child, who was always interested in different things. So they all sort of indulged me," she says. "[My father] just thought I was weird and interesting."
In Shakespeare Wallah, she played Manjula, who was beautiful, haughty, glamorous and slender. Watching Jaffrey in this role, it is difficult to imagine this elegant woman wearing an apron and cooking in a kitchen. Jaffrey doesn't care much for aprons, but she's finally given in to them.
"I've resisted aprons actually, until maybe this year," she says. "I finally said to hell with it, I had better put on an apron, because I'm ruining all my clothes!"
'Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery'
In 1966, the New York Times ran a story by Craig Claiborne, called "Indian Actress is a Star in the Kitchen, Too." The piece discussed Jaffrey's work as both cook and food writer — achievements that she'd never expected.
"I have had trouble taking it seriously," she says. "But I consider both of them to be my professions now. But one was the one I sought and studied for, and the other dropped from heaven."
As part of her accidental cooking career, Jaffrey began taping a cooking series for the BBC in the '80s: Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery. She'd been told that the program was to be an educational one, but she had little idea how far the education she was imparting was going to spread.
"This was the first time that British people were actually cooking proper Indian food in their homes," she says. "I remember reading articles, like they'd run out of cilantro — which is called green coriander — in Manchester, because I had made a dish the day before with chicken cooked with cilantro, and they'd run out of it. It really changed the way the English were eating Indian food."
And if you're looking to make some Indian food of your own this holiday season, Jaffrey suggests the perfect soup to spice up your days of Christmas dinner leftovers. (You can find the recipe here.)
"It's a red pepper soup with ginger and fennel," she says. "This is a good time to have it, and to keep your sinuses clear."